First-class honours in snobbery and woolly thinking

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There's a type of Oxbridge graduate who tells you all about it as soon as you meet him. It took David Walker less than a minute to define himself as a grammar school- and-Cambridge boy. There was A Degree of Uncertainty (R4) about nearly everything else he said, but he was sure of one thing: he's all right. Just like Melvyn Bragg, he has irreproachable BBC credentials.

What bothers him is the fact that other people, lots of them, are going to new universities now, and that it was the Tories who have made it possible. He seems to think this must be wrong, but he can't decide why. He went to visit Derby. lt was never, he opined, fatuously, "what the poet called Oxford, a silver city with those dreamy spires" (excuse me, which poet was that?) and he poured scorn on the photograph in its brochure which, he thought, suggested that "universities have to do with a bucolic vision of the life of the mind" - this man's command of English says little for his education.

Cambridge did not, apparently, teach him much about logic, either. New universities, he grumbled, are not career-based, have not adapted to current needs, yet nor are they "repositories of learning, offering students the chance of reading books and thinking thoughts". In his day, you were lucky to have a bike. Now, scandalously, some undergraduates drive cars. They are not surrounded by the mullioned quads, tweedy profs and sherry- sipping dons he remembers, so how dare they still dress up in cap and gown to receive their degrees - which, anyway, are far less prestigious than the qualifications offered by the dozen or so best establishments.

My daughter has just got a degree from the University of Portsmouth. She worked at least as hard as her sisters, who attended two of the "best". Though their courses were academically rigorous, her modular course was wider and more stimulating: she is better prepared for a real job than they are. The friends she made come from a broader band of society, and several of them are much older than she is. It does no good to decry the kind of dynamic education she received, especially in the muddled manner of this confused and grouchy presenter.

There are several important issues crying out for the attention of this series: the student loan problem, for example, or the tiny number of women in senior posts, but David Walker is unlikely to be the man to shed much light on them. He has two more weeks to prove himself, but on the evidence of the first, his will be lectures we'd do better to skip.

Adrian Henri studied Fine Art in the Fifties, when modernism ruled, but he was seduced by the lush splendour of the then unfashionable Pre-Raphaelites. They led him to the poetry of Tennyson, which he celebrated in Poets' Poetry Please (R4). As he revelled in the mellifluous language of the last great laureate to be truly popular, I revelled with him all the way until he reached those lines in "Maud" where pathos topples hopelessly over into bathos: "Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls/To the flowers and be their sun". Somehow it just won't quite do, will it?

Poetry is the grandest and most demanding of the arts, and truth its most insistent demand. An intensely moving interval feature illustrated this on Sunday. Pure Gravy (R3) was how Raymond Carver described the last 10 years of his life. Reprieved from imminent, alcohol-induced death, he lived with and married the poet Tess Gallagher and left her a legacy of love poems, read here with quiet understatement by Kerry Shale. Her gift to him was a restored belief in himself, for which he thanked her in his last "Fragment": "And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?/I did./And what did you want?/To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth".

To stay for a moment with the sublime, last Sunday, a couple of days before the feast itself, we heard Lauds for the Feast of the Transfiguration (R3) from Pluscarden Abbey. The psalmody and responses were interspersed with remarks by the precentor, Father Benedict, talking with cheerful serenity about the programme of divine office, which is sung every day to the eight modes of plainchant. Each mode has its own character, he said, some so lovely that you'd never want them to stop. He was right. It was enough to make you dream of taking the veil.

By this time of year, the Proms (R3) have become a nightly treat. Tuesday saw the London premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies's Sixth Symphony, a large, complex work whose imposing last adagio is a lament for the death of the composer's friend, the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown. Sandwiched between the gaudy rising sun of Nielsen's Helios and Tasmin Little's exuberant performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, this was typically clever programming - a jewelled summer evening of glowing Northern lights.

Back to education. The composer Mark Russell set out to discover whether Perfect Pitch (R3) can actually be learnt. He proved, conclusively, that it can, that it is a question of training the memory. He bashed an A on a tuning fork every few minutes during his researches and invited us to remember it. It's now two days since the programme was broadcast but I've just checked with the piano, and I'm still getting it right. Wowee, this is real progress. Could he come back and teach us another note next week?